Save me from reality TV

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2005, 12:00am

Being less than a month off two score and three years of age and having so far survived the occasional personal tragedy, child-rearing, Hong Kong's air and the rush for Disneyland tickets, I would have thought that I had seen and done it all. Then I read an article about Dutch television.

The Netherlands is a fine and noble country with a long and glorious history. Anyone straight out of college who visited there on their first trip abroad, as I did in 1983, has a special place in their heart for the country and its 16 million people.

A night-time stroll in Amsterdam, a glance at the menus in its coffee houses, the happy throngs of bare-footed, long-haired people in its parks - they all speak of tolerance and understanding.

Bicycles are considered a viable alternative to cars, Dutch scientists are developing cleaner energy sources to fossil fuels, and three of the staples of life - beer, cheese and chocolate - are produced in plentiful and excessively palatable quantities.

The piles of litter and graffiti-soaked walls during my visits revealed the Dutch are perhaps just a tad too tolerant. But a nation insistent on being collectively as happy as can be, while looking for ways to improve their lives through alternative energy, is fine by me.

So it was with wonderment that I discovered that the Netherlands is also a leader in the development of humankind's most senseless invention: the reality television show.

Big Brother, where a group of people subject themselves to living in a house for 100 days under television camera surveillance, was created there in 1999 and has since been syndicated in dozens of countries. Along with Survivor, it has transformed the viewing expectations of all and sundry, who now demand nothing short of the bizarre.

As a result of the shows and format spinoffs like The Apprentice, Temptation Island, Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Top Model and The Great Race, I have seen and heard more than I ever want to in this life and the ones thereafter.

For the sake of money and television exposure, I have observed people cheating on their partners, scrambling over each other for free plastic surgery, devouring bugs and weeds for lack of anything else edible and trying to knife their best friend in the back. Britain's BBC television has an upcoming show in which teenagers will try to abstain from sex for six months. A television search is on for a replacement for the frontman of the rock band INXS, the late Michael Hutchence. And American homemaker supremo Martha Stewart is about to do her own version of The Apprentice. If only she had promised to continue making homes, I would have pledged to stick to writing columns, but after this, anything could happen.

Dutch television executives seem to think that we have not had enough. Tomorrow night, they will screen the pilots of five reality shows and let viewers decide which will become a series. Among the offerings are a woman in search of a sperm donor, five former prostitutes trying to start a cafe and a couple who have never met getting engaged.

Of them, I Want Your Child and Nothing Else must surely be the lowest of reality television lows: a 30-year-old woman gets the help of a lesbian couple in choosing the man who will provide the sperm for the baby she has always wanted. Viewers will even see her undergoing artificial insemination.

Amid my screams of 'too much information!' I confess that I have learned much from all these shows. No longer do I dream of deserted islands or meeting a curvaceous model. Rather, I have learned that instead of subjecting my senses to voyeuristically sneaking a peek at loud-mouthed, over-confident exhibitionists, life is made far richer by simply curling up with a good book.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor